Wednesday, March 19, 2008

President Bush Visits Monrovia

{LTC Chris Wyatt at Spriggs-Payne Airfield in Monrovia, minutes before President Bush arrived in Marine 1, February 21st, 2008.}

Up until recently, nearly the entire focus of my effort in Liberia was to build the new Armed Forces of Liberia. However, the announcement that President George W. Bush would visit Liberia changed all that. Until now I had never been abroad in a country where the sitting president visited. I had heard how much effort it takes to make the trip successful. I will confess that although I knew this visit would entail a lot of work, I still found myself constantly surprised by people and events. The president’s visit kept everyone at the embassy very busy for many weeks. But for me personally the visit was just one more “huge” event at the end of seven long weeks filled with other huge events (graduations, Armed Forces Day).

That said it was nonetheless a very interesting and challenging experience; from driving up and down UN Drive with no traffic and tens of thousands of spectators waving to me, to the arrival ceremony at Spriggs-Payne airfield, to the handshake and brief conversation the president and I shared to the pass in review the AFL soldiers did --- it was all very interesting.
President Bush and President Johnson-Sirleaf both gave good speeches. President Bush promised to deliver 1 million school textbooks and 10,000 student desks before the next school year begins. He told a couple of jokes -- including one about his home state of Texas and Liberia both being “lone star” states. Afterwards some commentators seemed a little disappointed that President Bush did not offer Liberia any new money because of the promises he made in other Africa countries earlier in the trip. I suppose that they lost site of the $1.4 billion the United States has already given to Liberia since 2004. He talked about education, fighting malaria and debt relief. It was a little strange, as the troops were gathered but neither president really spent much of their time actually “addressing” the Armed Forces of Liberia. But the truth of the matter is that one would be hard pressed to call the visit anything other than a huge success, both for Liberia and for the Bush Administration. For me personally, this is the first time I have ever shaken my own president’s hand.

Armed Forces Day in Liberia (2008)

{AFL military police complete an unarmed combat demonstration during Armed Forces Day events at the Barclay Training Center in Monrovia, February 11th, 2008}

There are “big” days and then there are “BIG” days. Armed Forces Day in Liberia is one of the latter. 2008 marks the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Liberian military. In 1908, the Frontier Force, Liberia’s first military arm, came into existence. The current Armed Forces of Liberia (AFL) can trace it roots to the Frontier Force. Needless to say, the Liberian government and the Ministry of National Defense in particular was intent on the day (February 11th) being filled with exciting and successful events.

Among the many AFL activities for the public that day were: an officer commissioning ceremony, cross country combat run, rucksack march, unarmed combat demonstration (by the military police), marching music demonstration by the AFL Band, presidential troop inspection, a parade through the streets of Monrovia and a military ball in the evening. The 500 plus soldiers who participated are likely for a long time to remember the events and the extremely warm reception they received from the public.

Armed Forces Day provided an opportunity for ordinary Liberians to see their army and form their own opinions regarding the progress of the reconstituted AFL. Judging by the warm reception and the countless tear-filled eyes on display, many likely see the value of the new AFL. Or at least they are content with the current product. For most Liberians this was their first glimpse at the product of a now two year plus process to rebuild the army under the aegis of the U.S. Government. I’ll have to confess that we put a great deal of effort into preparing the army and venues for this day. The troops rehearsed endlessly. In the end it all paid off, as Armed Forces Day proved to be a great success and a source of pride for all Liberians involved. As it turns out the events also served to help us prepare for the subsequent visit by President Bush to Liberia. From that standpoint, Armed Forces Day success lasted beyond the events of the day.